Hackers target research from UK universities

Data confirms a rise in cyberattacks within higher education, posing a threat to national security

Oxford University
(Image credit: 2012 Getty Images)

British universities face hundreds of successful cyberattacks each year, according to new data gathered by The Times.

The scale of the problem is getting worse, the paper says, with the number of reported cybersecurity breaches doubling in the past two years to 1,152 in 2016-17.

Scientific, engineering and medical research is believed to have been compromised, and while universities have declined to reveal the specific content affected, "research into missiles, stealth fabric - used to help disguise military vehicles and weapons - and energy... is thought to be among the targets", The Times says.

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It is likely that nation states are behind the hacks, several senior university staff claimed, with one institution reportedly tracing the bulk of its attacks to China, Russia and the Far East.

As well as seizing important intellectual property, criminal groups are reportedly targeting students' personal data for money laundering and identity theft - as well as for blackmail purposes.

It is feared that the latests attacks are only the tip of the iceberg. Most universities have such “fundamentally backward-looking” defences that many attacks are likely to go untraced, Dave Palmer, the director of technology at cybersecurity company Darktrace, told The Times.

The new data follows earlier warnings that British universities are woefully unprepared to cope with increasing cyberthreats, including a study in March 2016 that found that more than a third of UK universities were hit by a successful cyberattack every hour.

The National Cyber Security Centre said it is "working on the ways that protection might be extended to universities", but urged all organisations to create robust online security systems. "We can't do this alone", it said.

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